In July, Spotify reported that it has 60 million subscribers – a 100 percent jump from last year (its closest competitor, Apple Music, has 27 million). Streaming revenue has jumped from $1.8 billion to $3.8 billion in two years, and its users like being turned on to new music: More than half of Spotify users listen to the service's constantly updated playlists, like Today's Top Hits, which has more than 16 million subscribers. For artists, getting placed on a prominent playlist has become nearly as important as radio play. "Labels obsess over that," says Ben Swanson, co-owner of indie label Secretly Group, which represents rockers like the War on Drugs. As playlists become the new radio, here are some of the music industry's new rules.
Curators Are the New Gatekeepers
Spotify's top hip-hop play list is RapCaviar, with more than 7 million listeners. It's curated by Tuma Basa, a former programmer at MTV and BET, who became the service's head of hip-hop in 2015. "Tuma Basa is like an artist," says Daniel Glass, president of Glassnote Records, who saw his client Childish Gambino get a huge bump when Basa added his song "Redbone" to the playlist. "Radio stations picked up on that – 'If RapCaviar can play it, then I can.'" To achieve this kind of placement, managers employ consultants like mtheory to meet with execs, present data and make their case. "Hopefully, you're seeing a bunch of good play counts and save ratios," says Zack Gershen, executive vice president of mtheory. "Then you go back to Spotify and say, 'Have we gotten to a point yet where we've earned a spot in a playlist?' Release week – sometimes it's not gonna happen."
Timing Is Everything
Big names like Ed Sheeran are almost guaranteed space on prominent playlists. For smaller names, the journey takes longer. Electro-pop singer Lauv, who currently has a Spotify smash with his single "The Other," first released the song two years ago. At the end of 2016, Spotify added it to a lower-tier dance playlist. It did so well that the track eventually made its way to Today's Top Hits. "I saw the song go from 8 million streams to over 100 million streams," says Lauv. "It's insane." The buzz allowed the DJ to launch his first headlining tour. For record companies, it's all about knowing the right moment to lobby for a playlist add: "If we ask for it too quickly, it's going to land with a thud," says Gershen. "It's like catching a wave with surfing."
It's Good to Have a Friend With a Popular Playlist
Everyone from Father John Misty to Frank Ocean curates their own playlists for Spotify. Diplo and Friends Radio is a popular artist playlist, with 250,000 subscribers. The DJ regularly adds his favorite music, which often includes people he knows. He recently added a tourmate's song, the Australian DJ Anna Lunoe's "Godzilla," giving her a 25 percent bump in streams. "One artist talks to [another]: 'I include you, you include me,'" says Cory Llewellyn, a former Epic Records digital-music executive. Glass says the negotiations aren't quite so transactional. "I haven't heard of artists saying, 'I'll take care of you if you take care of me,'" says Glass. "But I'm 99 percent sure it exists in the pop world when they're in those strategy meetings." As playlists become bigger marketing tools, Glass worries about corruption. "I predict you'll see people trying to manipulate and curry favor with each other. Just like an agent trying to get someone on tour – you'll see artists and managers trying to get on playlists."
Elevator Music Pays Big
Spotify's most popular playlists include Peaceful Piano and Deep Focus – ambient music people relax to. Those songs rack up tens of millions of streams, which means big paydays for their copyright owners. The owner, some say, is Spotify itself. In 2016, Music Business Worldwide reported that Spotify pays some producers a flat fee to create ambient music within specific guidelines, then retains ownership of it. "It's absolutely untrue," says Spotify's Chief Content Officer Stefan Blom. The reality may be more complicated: Some suggest Spotify commissions the music – much of it is recorded in Sweden, where Spotify is based – and pays those creators smaller royalty rates than other artists. "It's shady," says one insider. "But it's difficult to call out, because it does make sense what they're doing."
New Playlist, New Audience
Playlists can broaden audiences in a big way. After country singer Sam Hunt played a gig for Spotify in 2014, his debut single, "Leave the Night On," started appearing on Spotify playlists. "I was seeing a large amount of female African-Americans coming to shows," says his manager, Brad Belanger. "[I would ask them] 'Did you guys hear this on country radio?' 'No, on Spotify.'" These days, Hunt is basically a pop artist; his single "Body Like a Back Road" is a Top 20 hit on the Hot 100 – and Belanger calls Spotify crucial to Hunt's success.
From issue #791 (October, 2017), available now. Main illustration: Dan Page.